Friday, September 1, 2017

"Ghost on the Car Radio" - Slaid Cleaves

I first heard Slaid Cleves on a local PBS station a number of years ago.  It was a song called "Quick as Dreams," a beautiful story of horses, friendship, loss, sadness and, perhaps, salvation.  I just remember the song ending and me saying to myself, I gotta learn that song.  Stop by the porch anytime the light's on, and I'll play it for you.

(I've been staring at this screen now for ten minutes, I even went up for a fresh cup of coffee, and I can't figure how to proceed - which is unlike me.  I usually just let the words and ideas take me where they will but, today my mind is taking me somewhere I don't really want to go, a place, a situation - I don't really understand - something I'd rather not admit.)

Here goes.

I listen to a lot of music these days.  I take nostalgic trips back to old tunes that shaped me and shake my head at some of the songs I thought were good realizing, well, otherwise.  I hear tunes, new and old, that I've not known.  I've been heavy into Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana and Roots music.  I give some of the current pop stars a chance, to mixed results.  And, truth is, I do it all on Spotify.  There, I've said it.

We've got a paid subscription, and I think it's wonderful.  It rarely fails to come up with the song I want to hear, especially all my old favorites, and, through algorithms and computery-magic-computation stuff it gives me stations - pop country from the seventies, western swing, one based on the music of Guy Clark - and new music and hot hits and all that.  I come upon some great things I've never encountered, tunes and albums I would never hear otherwise.   I'd be lying if I didn't give the credit to Spotify for this renaissance I've been experiencing.

I know, I know... listening to music on Spotify is not how most artists want their music listened to.  A recent article in the Washington Post states that an artist gets seven dollars for every 1,000 plays - that's a lot of plays.

Oh, and it gets worse, and I'm going to help that along.  You see, I also listen to a lot of music on YouTube - or do I view it?  I like to take a look at the artist, get the vibe, see the instruments, and, confession time again, try to crib the chords from live performances.  And for every 1,000 plays on YouTube the artist - or performer or ham or scammer - gets exactly... a buck.

So, just to be clear, I'm using the least profitable platforms to listen to, share, and steal music from artists I very much like.

I'm an awful person, so, I'm going to link to YouTube videos in this post and direct you to Spotify (link) and generally do what most musicians probably hate... bother.

Well, now that that intro-interruptus has been endured, I'll continue my previously scheduled introduction.

After I learned that first song, I delved a little deeper into his music.  I listened to his older tunes, he's been at this a long time, and really got a taste for his style and all that.  And then, as will happen, I sort of set him aside and found new places to go.  But then, a few months back, I heard a new track of his on one of those personalized Spotify playlists, "Your Release Radar," I think it's called, and remembered what a profound singer-songwriter he is.

Folks recommend music to each other all the time, but what Ive noticed is that they don't always say why.  They'll say, This is the greatest Such-n-Such album ever!  And, I'll think well, I like Such-n-Such or I've never heard of Such-n-Such, I should give it a listen, but I'm never quite sure what I am listening for.

Also, I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about.  I'm not a musicologist.  Style confuses me,  terminology escapes me, and, honestly, I have trouble figuring out what the time signature is in most songs. I do know words and stories and that is what Slaid Cleaves does best for me.

Here's a link (I think it's the official one, but I like this one better) to the first song on the album - am I still allowed to say it that - 'album'?  It's called "Already Gone" (here, also, is a link to the lyrics of all the songs from his official site), and it's a perfect introduction to the melodic roads we are about to...

You know what?  I don't know how to do this... just bear with, if you don't mind.

The chorus to "Already Gone" is:

Time's running out and you can't help believing but
Here you are now at the end of the song
Down fall the tears when you hear the silence
When you finally know that you're already gone

I often feel I'm at the end of my song..  I'd guess we all do, sometimes.  In one of the verses he says ...May not have gotten all that I dreamed of / Pretty sure I got what I deserved.  Life's like that.  

I've driven across the country six or eight times in my life.  In later years, as I did it alone, this very thing happened:

Heard an old ghost on the car radio
Under a diamond sky
Sang along as the wheels beneath me rolled
Cast my troubles out into the night

He finishes the verse with Feel the weight lift up off my shoulders / Feel some kind of mercy in the wind.

He opens the song with Young love breaks like a wave on the shoreline / A rolling crash and it's gone  and ends with mercy in the wind, I can't think of a prettier pair of metaphors to bracket the span of adulthood. 

In "Drunken Barber's Hand" he says:

I don't need to read the papers
Or the tea leaves to understand
That this world's been shaved
By a drunken barber's hand

I kinda feel like that's all I really know about this song.  I suspect a few other things, but, as with all good poetry, my notion of a world shaved by a drunken barber's hand may be a lot different than yours.  I suppose it could be about environmental issues or some such thing, but, for me, it just means this world is a pretty messed up place and yet, here we are.

I rode ten thousand miles
On a carousel horse of wood
We end up where we started
Get right back on if we could

I know I would.

I thought "If I Had A Heart" was a really good song, but I was wrong... it's damn near perfect.  You see, I initially under judged it.  I didn't go where the song, I think, ultimately wants to lead me.  I thought the song was a love song, perhaps one about unrequited love between an older man and a young girl (maybe it is, I dunno, or, maybe worse, I'm the only one who thought that) but, after several listenings I finally got it.  It's not a love song, it is the love song - a song to a child, to a son.

Then you come around
With your soft young skin
With no idea what you're about to step in
And in these times you remind me
Of the man I used to be
If I had a heart, you'd be breaking it now

It's a song explaining the implicit difficulties and juxtapositions, the twists and turns of this thing we call life.  He starts the song with:

The more I see, the less I understand
The harder I work, the poorer I feel
The deeper the faith, the more I'm broken
The more I hear, the less it all seems real
And later sings:

You'll see truth, turned into lies
Light turned to dark, hearts broke in two
Just one thing, before I die
I want to make one lie come true

"... make one lie come true."  Man, ain't that the truth.

One of my favorite things about Slaid is his willingness to take me along with him, and here, in sort of the center of the album, he does just that. I feel like he's just driving me, us, around in an old seventy-four Pontiac and meeting some of the crowd.

In "Little Guys" we meet Butch and Evelyn's boy.  He's a nice guy, a good son, and he knows the truth about what he's seeing as his little town gets too big for it's britches.

Stop lights we had one, now there's four
And you can't see the shop from Main street anymore
There's a new H.E.B. 'cross town
But over here things are slowing down
As I turn out the lights, lock up my front door
Mom and pops like us don' t have a place in the world today
The little guy shops don' t stand a chance when the big guys start to play

He knows it ain't right.

But he also knows a deeper truth, I truth that he owns here:

Oil and grime in the pores of my skin
Think of all the brake dust I've been breathin' in
I got a stack of new regulations
And high tech specifications
I can't keep up, too old to go to school again

He speaks of joining the old men mornings at the coffee shop after he closes his own.  He pipe-dreams, Or I could set up the navigation / Head out and see the nation, but we all know he'll be turning wrenches at B & E Auto until he dies - that's what "little guys" do.

Now, we're leaning against that old Pontiac '74, painted "Primer Gray" with a new alternator and stock drivetrain.  Specifically, somebody's dad is telling us about his old car.  But, truly, it's every dad, lamenting, perhaps lost times and races, or, simply, the passage of time.  But, the passage of time yields wisdom and Everydad drops some.

'Cause you don't need that flash and shine
You just need to be hard off the line
So keep your lacquer chrome and flames
I'll paint mine primer gray

He knows me.  He says I know the things men hold inside, I understand what he means by thatHe knows I am, or was, one of the Kids today, they all want something more.  I'm the guy talking to his buddies down at Dickie's - I pulled the engine with a block and chain ? Got the oil pump in just before the rain - a triumph we all can dig.  I'm the boy under a ramped rear-end, marveling as his dad explains the mysteries of a clutch and transmission.  I am that dad, later, desperately trying to explain a lesson that takes so long to understand.

The final couplet of the song is:

It's what you do, not what you say
I'll paint mine primer gray

You know, I can only guess at what a songwriter means or where he found inspiration.  The process is emotional, fraught with errors and misunderstandings, and so very personal at both ends - the artist and the audience.  But, I wanna say that just the other day as I got ready to shave and was taking myself in, I saw my beard and my hair, my mustache and my eyebrows, and said aloud to mirror, "I guess I'll paint mine primer gray."

I've been neglecting the musicality of these songs, so far it seems like I'm talking about stories or poems.  As I said earlier I don't think I'd be good at that, talking music, but it doesn't mean I leave unexplored the melody and rhythm and key and such...

That's a lie, I totally leave it all alone, I don't notice it until I try to think about it.  "Primer Gray" made me feel melancholy, nostalgic, haunted.  I later noticed that it's also in "E", one of the most round and open and honest of keys, lending itself well to sevenths and minors and wispy slide guitar solos and...

I'm sorry, I don't seem to have the right nomenclature.

Or maybe I do.

The song "Hickory" did the same to me, the music waited in my periphery as I focused on the words.  But later, when I considered the chords and melody, phrasing and tonality (basically, when I was cribbing the song from videos so I could play it), I was flummoxed by the grace and beauty of the melody.  A melody simple, familiar, and true. Those beautiful whole and soft G, D, and C acoustic chords make the story so listenable.

In less polished hands "Hickory" could be sappy or sentimental, it is not.  It's a familiar story: a beautiful thing brought down in the sadness that is time and progress and the waiting for - and, perhaps, trusting in - redemption.  It wafts in on the wind, as though from across a parking lot, and compels you to lean into it.  It is confessional and private.  There is a moment in the song - a moment I will let you discover - that truly is breath-taking.  A moment you forgot to expect, that moment where the story tells itself.

Just take a look at this stanza:

Heard saws on the mountain, saw the trucks rumble by
Filing past like a funeral line
Those big iron trailers were piled up high
With hickory, walnut and pine

You can hear those saws, abrasive and raw; you can see them old diesel trucks, round and belching black exhaust, lumbering and growling on dirt roads and switchbacks; you can reach out and touch the bark of a newly felled tree, warm and moist from sun and sap, and then run your hand down the rusty, cold, and dry iron.

Really, give this song a listen, or stop by the porch when the light's on and I'll sing it for ya, hell, I can even play it in the dark.

I can't seem to shake my imaginary scene here in the parking lot of Dickie's Place.  Another guy - a friend of Butch's boy's, I imagine they played football together back in the day - opens his story, "Take Home Pay," with a couple solid electric chords and a quick bass riff that both floats and drives and these words:

Been hanging rock for twenty-odd years now
Six days a week and I can't keep up
My shoulder burns like a grinding gear box
These young crews are too fast and tough

I never hung sheet-rock, but my shoulders sure do burn from thirty-plus years of throwing boxes, trays of food, baby boys, and an occasional friend or foe on mine.  I've rarely been in "fast and tough" situations, but I've been passed up for younger folks.  I know not being able to keep up.

This is why I find his songwriting so rich and captivating.  In spelling out small details, using first person, shaping a particular scene, manipulating my senses, he paints universal themes.

That's what storytellers do.  He's telling us that in this chorus:

Schemers scheme around the edges
Dreamers dream of better days
Everyone knows what the catch is
It's all about the take home pay

The take home pay is what we get in the end, severance for our pain; sometimes it is money, sometimes it's just getting through another damn day - and sometimes it's poetry and magic.

Well, you know what, we've been standing in this parking lot for a while now, let's go have one last round inside with "The Old Guard".

Dickie's Place is a tavern where I often go
Like tonight when this heart of mine is achin' low
Through swinging doors I hear the voice of old George Jones
I find myself a bar stool and I'm right at home

Damn, I'm pretty sure I've been here before.  In fact, I may have tended bar here.  Familiar faces, old friends, lots of beer, memories, stories...

The old guard down at Dickie's drinks up all night long
Every face, lined and weary, hides a country song
Ruined lives, broken dreams, countless cold regrets
On the jukebox, their stories told in silhouette

Cheatin' Hearts, Crazy Arms, now it's Crying Time
Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme
Every night we get together to be with our own
And the old guard feels a little less alone

The songwriting is so clever here.  The sound and mix echoes out of the seventies country scene, with a little western swing and catchy guitar hook that makes you smile every time.

I was dozens of times into listening to this song before I actually looked at the lyrics, and then I saw it.  I was so mesmerized by the ease of the lyrics, the poetry of them, I didn't hear it at first, didn't make the connection.  The line right after, Heartbreak goes down easier with beer and rhyme, so captured my attention with its insight and universality that I missed the specifics.

"Cheating Hearts" and "Crazy Arms" and Crying Time" are all titles of songs from the era he's hankering back to, the titles of the songs on the jukebox.  Just brilliant.

In the song, the Old Guard sit and shoot the shit and listen to some old George Jones, or maybe some Dolly or Waylon or Price.  A younger crowd, the Young Guard perhaps, comes in. Then some kids they start playin' their fast modern tunes / And the floor bounces when they dance around the room.  But one of the old dudes says he's had enough and 

He starts punching in the numbers of the ones we feel
Those old heart-breakin' melodies with cryin' steel
The young ones start leaving, it's too slow and hard
But they'll be back when it's their turn to join the guard



 "... a carousel of horse and wood."

It's time to get going, time to leave my new, old friends.  Slaid has something else to tell me, but it's personal, not the stuff for crowds.

Sometimes it's the shape of a song, the structure of the thing, that captures my attention.  "So Good to Me" has verses, what appears to be a chorus, and what seems like a couple of bridges.  It's starts all jangly and open, and then it saddens,  The harmonies are different, the mood changes... and then it comes back around and then somehow mixes the two and fades.

This song sounds to me like the wedding renewal vows of a really cool dude to his extraordinary wife.

With the world so cold outside
You'd be always on my side
If I stumbled blindly you could make me see
Through thick and thin you stayed
All through my darkest days
How could you possibly be so good to me

A long relationship is often a cyclical and seasonal, and he lays that out so honestly, heart wide open.

Times were tough but we were tougher
Slings and arrows we did suffer
Scars, we've got a few, but who has not
Words of love and words of anger
Times of peace and times of danger
Never take for granted what we've got

Yeah, that about covers it, doesn't it?

Men - well, the kind of men I like and respect - apologize in whispers and love quietly.  Slaid does that in "To Be Held."  It's a private song with haunting harmonies and floating guitar, and it is aimed directly at not me.  But there it is, on an album, it must be for me as well.  And... it is.  Why?

You're not asking for diamonds
You don't want furs
You don't dream of silver and gold
All you're asking is to be cherished
To be held and to hold

I needed to hear that.

And this.

I walk around blindly
I bumble along
In my heart I know that I'm wrong
It's a cold consolation:
I'm sorry again
One more time the same story told
And all that you want is a chance to get closer
To be held and to hold

It is easy to let this all fall into an apologetic hug, but I think it is more.  I hold my sons and my wife and my family inside me.  When you hold someone, even those miles or lifetimes away, you regard them, you honor them, you raise them up and show them about in wonder and thanksgiving.  And, of course, the inverse is true.  When we know we are being held, we feel lifted, sacred.  Sunsets are prettier, stars are brighter, greens greener, happiness, well, happier.

Holding is the hard work love asks of us.  It is Hope.

To be held is Hope's reward.  It is Grace.

I suspect there is more to "Still Be Mine" than I know.  I'm cool with that, I'm not sure what most of the music in the seventies was about.  Sometimes a mood or phrase or piano riff can be enough.  Perhaps a certain phrase wallops you upside the head, say, like...

I won't ask more questions
I'm old enough to know there is no remedy
Could I ask one favor:
Would you try to hold on to what's left of me?
Forget the rest of me, and all you thought I'd be

Am I sure what this means?  No, not at all, but I know what it's like to hope that someone is willing to "try to hold on to what's left of me."  We all need and deserve that.

"Junkyard" is just a simple song, a plaintive fingered guitar, an easy melody, but it equals, somehow, the whole of the rest of the album.  He's opened the album with upbeat waves breaking like young love on the shoreline and closes it with one last trip to the junkyard.  It's been a journey, but it ain't over, it'll circle back.

I choked back a sob the first time I heard this tune.  Not just because it hurt me, but because it lifted me.

Oh, I'm headed out to the junkyard
On the lonely side of town
This time it's a one way trip boys
I won't be coming back round

And it's one last time to the junkyard
I've swapped out my share of parts
From fenders and alternators
To shoulders, knees and hearts

The doctors and the mechanics
Have done all they can do
With hammer, wrench and scalpel
Ball joint, valve and screw

It's time to throw in the towel
Some breakdowns you cannot mend
Like all that have come before us
We all must face the end

So I'm limping back to the junkyard
In cloud of smoke and dust
I won't be driving out this time
Gonna lay me down to rust

Gonna leave this old shell behind now
Set our spirits free
Gonna walk on out to glory
Sun setting down on me

I've pulled my own parts at the junkyard on the lonely side of town... it's still there, way out in Cleves, which is a nice poetic twist, I think.  I've had scalpels cut me wide.  I've felt like I'm "Gonna lay me down to rust" and "walk on out to glory."  Truly, sometimes it's hard not to feel done...  especially as you feel that dust and rust and wear and tear of age.  Man, I get what he's laying down here.

And, that's what lifts me, knowing another human, another man, another brother, a dude I like and respect, feels the same way... it helps.  I think Slaid knows that, I think he's known it all along.  So many of the songs in this collection could seem sad, even bitter, but they don't.  Everyone's gonna be alright; endings will begin; beginnings always end.

All through this album I've felt spun, gently, as in a quiet eddy.  I've started here, gone way over there, and ended back here.  I walked a timeline that seems to constantly fall into itself.  I've loved through heartbreak, hoped through through breakdown, I've celebrated through sorrow.

And... that's a good thing.

It's impossible to fathom how many kinds of wrong I probably am in my assessment of this album.  And yet, I'm gonna plow on.  Themes of passing time, long relationships, bittersweet memories, aging and restoration run through it all, but...  am I allowed to even do that, tell you his themes?  Maybe not, and maybe that makes things easier.

I can tell you that I heard those themes.  I can tell you that this album lingered and echoed in my head long after my little Bose speaker ran out of juice.  I can tell you that I needed to meet these people, hear their songs, celebrate their stories.  I can tell you I needed to think about time and seasons and circles and such.

Finally, I needed to think about redemption.  I used the word restoration a bit ago because I thought it was clever and hearkened back to old '74's and junkyards and shoulders - but, I meant redemption.  Redemption is restorative.  I said once in this post that "It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song."

I want to thank Slaid Cleves for singing his to me.

And (if in my mind only), that circles me back to where I started - you remember, feeling guilty about how I behave as a music listener.  I feel like I don't support my favorite artists in a way that leads to their financial success.  He doesn't tour close to here in the near future.  I suppose I could buy a shirt or something, or just send him a twenty.  But I don't need an album or a CD or a digital download - although I would, actually, really dig a shirt.  I like listening to him on Spotify.  It's easy and simple and affordable.  I'm glad there are videos of him on YouTube and the like.

So, what's a guy to do?  Well, I wrote this exceedingly long post in a way to offer my support in another way.  I want him to know he touched me, and I want you to know why.  I suspect he already does.  You don't write songs like these and not know you're going to move folks.  I wanted him to know that he reminded me what a great medium that old-fashioned, set aside, album/record/LP was... is.  He brought back old friends and good times and broken hearts and bright yesterdays.  I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do.

I owe ya, dude.

You know, when I was a kid we'd actually carry albums around.  You might take the newest Stones or John Denver over to you friends house or carry a stack of good dance music or rock-n-roll to a party over off Court street.  Your girl, or that glam rocker from second period math, might make you suffer through something you didn't like.  We'd all poor over the liner notes and cover art like it was scripture.  We were compelled to both share it with others and hold it in our own hands...  that's what I've tried to do here.

To be held and to hold...

Thanks for staying around.  It was fun.  Stop by when you can, I'm learnin' a couple more...


(I don't usually add anything to a post after I've published it, short of a blatant spelling or grammatical errors, I usually just leave it, but something happened that I think merits attention.)

I wrote above of the artist/audience relationship and said:  "I want him to know that he did, for me, what an artist is supposed to do."

I wrote a note to Slaid on his website, he's got an "Ask Slaid"  widget and just told him a wrote about his album.  Well he took the time to do two things, first he responded positively to what I laid down, which I thought was damn decent of him,  

"Goddamn, Bill, that might be my favorite review of all time. Nail on the head. You do a lovely job expressing the effect the music has on you; no need to apologize for lack of professional training or anything like that. (And you'd be surprised how many published reviews misquote the lyrics.) Thanks for letting me know that I'm doing the job I set out to do."

... the job he set out to do, that really touched me because he got what I was trying to do.

He also did what I think any of the characters in his songs would do, made sure to thank and acknowledge the folks that made this all happen.

"One caveat: I had a lot of help in writing and producing this album. Co-writers Rod Picott, Nathan Hamilton, Karen Poston, Mike Morgan, Jeff Elliott, Graham Weber, with Scrappy Jud Newcomb producing."

Seems like just the thing Butch and Evelyn's boy would do... 

Slaid Cleaves is the real deal, friends; he's honest and real and earthy and decent and right.  I wish he lived next door, and had a nice porch...

Peace, again.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mine, Yours, Theirs... Who Knows?

It's easy to compare - and easier to contrast - our childhoods to those of our children.  On the surface it all seems so disparate.

There's the classic music argument, but, you know, I never really thought "my" music, whatever that might mean, was any better than my parents.  Belafonte, Mel Torme, The Kingston Trio, Burl Ives and so many more, will forever hold up against Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, John Denver and will always beat The BeeGees.  The truth is, I like today's pop music enough - Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, The Lumineers, Train, Saint Motel - it's all quite listenable.  Is it over-produced?  Yes, but so were The Police.  Do I hate auto-tune?  Yes, with the same hatred I had for Disco, but, I've heard a lot of that, too, and it didn't hurt me.

Somewhere in the mid-seventies I got the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar.  Jesus, I loved that LP.  I played it all the time, wrote down the lyrics, starting and stopping the turntable - probably ruining the vinyl -and singing along like a rock star.  If you were to go upstairs right now and ask the boys what they wanted to listen to, I guarantee they'd answer "Hamilton!"  I gotta admit, when I first heard it I was offput, the rapping, the modernity, the f-bombs and salaciousness - it seemed too much for my tender "1776" ears.  Now, after a dozen or more times listening through the whole show, well, I think it's about the best thing I've heard this century.  We've even checked out the book about the musical from the library.  Is it better than "Superstar"?

You know, that's where it gets tricky.  The defiant teen that still sleeps in the basement of my psyche might scream, "Hell, no!"  The rock-and-roll-ness of "Superstar" juxtaposed to the Christian subject matter really blew my mind back then.  But, you know what? the historical story that "Hamilton" tells, set to rap and funk with real language and astonishing rhymes, yeah, pretty cool. too.

So, maybe it's not the music, it's what the music does for us, them, did me, then.  That record, spinning on my portable turntable on an unmade bed, opened my mind up.  Learning the words, singing along, imagining what part I might have, wondering how Mary could seem so hot, all of it sent my mind further down the road of understanding.  For the boys, hearing it on the CD from the library, watching vids on YouTube that had the words, listening to the whole soundtrack on long rides because Marci bought it, rapping out the songs on the playground with their friends, well, I think the experience has shown them that same road - the "there's-so-much-more" road that surprises us all over and over in our lives.

(Also, it is so damned cute to see them singing those difficult lyrics, smirking at the cuss words, nailing the rhymes and keeping up with the difficult and foreign style.)

The other big discussion is, of course, technologies.  I watched my share of television as a kid, but, it was hardly edifying.  I'd've killed for even the worst of today's Disney programming back then.  What I saw was weird kid's shows - I'm looking at you Uncle Al - and creepy puppet shows and bad B movies or good movies cut to shreds hosted by drunken dudes dressed as werewolves.  I even thought Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Greenjeans were sort of, well, strange.  I think the boys have it better.  They'll watch whole seasons of old shows on Netflix, every Animaniacs, every Loony Tunes, old and new Bill Nye, documentaries on the brain and optical illusions - all, commercial free.  Honestly, I think they have me beat there.

The boys don't play a lot of console games, we have a Wii but it hardly ever gets played anymore.  They do play some "RPG" games on their computers or Kindles.  They play one called "Grail" and another called "Wizard 101."  They get really involved in them sometimes.  They play for hours and have nonsensical conversations that would rival any Ionesco play.  At times I get frustrated with them, I feel they are wasting time and money and brain cells on them.  I'm wrong, of course, to judge them because of one simple truth: I'd have killed to have a game like that when I was their age.  Fact.  I spent a summer playing Cribbage and "Battling Tops," both of which are rather boring and monotonous.  I can't imagine how much fun I would've found the games they spend hours on.

There are more things to come, smart-phones come to mind, texting, face-timing, game playing, study groups... and worse things I suspect.  But, is texting your girl any different than stretching the ultra-long cord from the kitchen and sitting on the basement steps and talking with your girl?  I doubt it.  Is not turning in your homework because you forgot the assignment better than getting into a Google chat with your classmates and doing it all together and wise-cracking as you did?  I doubt it.  Back in the mid-seventies we had a blizzard that effectively isolated us in our country home for over a week.  My brothers were away in college and I didn't have anything to do.  I'd traipse on over to my friend JB's house and we'd sit in his sixty-something Ford Falcon and smoke cigarettes, but, as I recall, that was about the only peer connection I had the whole time, I'm pretty sure the phone lines were down.  Would I have liked an opportunity to face-time and goof around with Dave and Bruce and Don or Lisa or Polly?  You bet I would've.

What other examples are there of this disparity of childhoods?  Here's one I've given some thought to: sports.  Although I did play organized Pee-Wee football - Pop Warner, for the informed - the vast majority of the sports we played were backyard pick-up games.  Baseball, some basketball, lots of football, a bit of volleyball - which as I recall segued into several months of badminton - an occasional game of soccer, for which we used a kickball, and some kickball, no doubt using a soccer ball, but I don't remember seeing a soccer ball until I got to college.

"Good for you," you may be saying.  Yes, uhm, but...  I think that's sort of a myth, "The Sandlot" and a few other movies, our own propensity to spin the details of youth into an often false utopia, that innate belief that all was right as a child, turn those games into movies themselves.  The real truth is that they were chaotic, there was lots of yelling and taunting and saying cruel things about each other, there were fights and constant arguments about rules and in-bounds and "do-overs" and "interference."  Playing football, tackle, believe it our not, we were reckless, bloodying our noses, cauliflowering our ears and blacking our eyes to the point where I'm surprised our parents were never questioned about our home life.

Baseball was a mess.  We never had enough kids so we let the littlest run bases and stand in the outfield.  Of course there was never an umpire unless someone's Dad sat on a Coleman cooler calling arbitrary strikes and balls, sipping a Miller Highlife - hence the cooler - and warning us that if one of us spilled his bottle he'd kick our asses.  There were rarely more than two baseballs and, honestly, fewer bats.  When we didn't have an ump or enough players, we'd have a designated pitcher, who called his own strikes, pitch to both teams.  We had no idea how to hold the bat or catch a grounder, it's not like we had any guidance or supervision, we were too afraid to spill Mike's dad's beer to approach him.  We'd call a fly into right an "automatic out" and we'd have the dreaded and confoundingly stupid "ghost runners" all over the damn field.  This, as in football, resulted in arguments, shoving matches and someone taking their ball and going home.

It all seems like fun in retrospect, but, honestly, it wasn't always.  Another thing that never seems to come up when grown folks wax poetic about their collective, superlative childhoods is "picking sides."  Some of the scenes in "Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe" are less harrowing and dramatic than those that develop as thirteen or fifteen (always an uneven number) kids, almost always boys in my experience, chose sides.  First someone has to be a "captain," the chooser, actually, two of them.  In an ideal world, these are popular, cool dudes with fair and honest hearts.  In reality, they were often the bullies, or the older guys, or the strongest, or whoever's ball or net or bat it was.  Now, the captains choose from a line of boys, all hoping to not get on the dick's team.  Friendships are betrayed.  Chubby and runty kids are chosen last.  "First-picks" go fast and "mid-picks" look eager and athletic and loyal.  Last minute trades to even things out are discussed but never acted upon.  One poor kid is left standing, sometimes me, wondering how things will work out.  "Well, I guess I'll take little Billy Peebles," and I try not to be noticed as I walk towards my brother's team.

It all sounds silly looking back on it, I mean how hard could it have been?  I know feelings were hurt, I can still see the disappointed faces on the boys I was choosing from when I finally stepped into the role of Captain.  I know I betrayed a friend or two choosing a better athlete over my lifelong friend, JB, or picking someone I thought was "cool" but was, looking back, a dick.  I know bodies were hurt, bruises, scrapes, a broken bone or two and probably uncountable concussions.  I also know it was often tense.  Was Wayne gonna punch somebody?  Would the big guys come again and take over the field?  Would darkness fall before the game was finished?  Would I get hurt?  Picked last?  Lose?  Get blood on my pants?

N & Z play "rec" ball - baseball, soccer and basketball.  There are refs and umps, the teams are chosen by committee in an attempt at fairness.  Qualified and dedicated coaches are on hand to show proper technique, offer support and act as role models.  Fights don't break out, there are plenty of balls and, well, hearts don't get broken.  I like to think I enjoyed the wildness of those backyard games, that I understand life's unfairness a bit more, that I learned about friendship and loyalty.  Yeah, maybe so...

Honestly, I'd have rather played rec ball.  It looks like fun.

Listen, I can only speak to my own childhood, as you can only speak to yours.  I think these memories of it are intensely private.  There are memoirists and novelists, songwriters and such who are brave enough to shine a light on theirs, but, my experience has been that people are reluctant to talk a lot about it, especially as it gets further and further away.  And, as it drifts further from now, the edges soften, the details obscure and the lessons transform.

There is song title that flits around in my mind from an album by Jethro Tull released in the early seventies: "Life's a Long Song."  The rest of the lyrics are, well, a bit uninspired, but that title - the refrain of the song - is worth remembering.  Life is a long song.  Childhood is long, careers are long, days are long, as are some years.

I recently heard a saying - I think I've mentioned it here before - "mine is not a failed attempt at yours."  I wish more folks would try the remember that.  I also think the inverse is true, just switch the  mine and yours.   Basically, my childhood and the boys' is the same childhood.  I also don't think you can "call" your childhood - label it good or bad, fruitful, lazy, whatever - because, even as it seems fixed in time, the way you see it is practically lunar or tidal - ebbing, waxing, waning, sometimes there, bright and strong, other times so far out on the horizon it seems nearly gone.  I don't think it is fair to tell someone how to fill their life, that's their hand to play.  You can't manipulate memory or set a lesson in stone.

Time changes everything isn't the lesson in stone, perspective changes everything, might be.

There is a lot of time in a lifetime, I am always astounded at how many lives I seem to have had.

There is a lot of time in a childhood.  Hours to be filled.  

I filled mine my way... and, they're doing a perfect job filling theirs.

Filling theirs with cutting meat for home-made Big Macs.

Or fidget spinning in a class shirt you designed for "field day."

Or taking a selfie with your dad.

Or learning "Hedwig's Theme" on a flute

Or, playing in a sandpit on your "first-cousin-once-removed"'s farm - God I hate the nomenclature for close family, someone should work on that.  (As an aside here, I grew up near sand and gravel pits so, seeing them jumping off and scrambling up one 800 hundred miles and forty-five years removed, was a bit odd - one of those moments when it all gets jumbled in my head.)

Or they might spend their time behind nice chain-link fences, throwing a few long balls...

...or  walking to a dugout...

... or being the battery as a fastball flies between hand and glove on an unforgettable midwest midday.

Or maybe they'll fill a couple of hours pranking me while I'm getting new tires for the camper, cutting paper and drawing smiley-faces and taping them onto every single thing in the refrigerator and freezer - a story I will guess will be told for a long time:

Well, I suppose I've taken enough of your time.  Thanks for stopping by, I know it's been a while since my porch-light's been lit.  I appreciate you looking out for it.

As always, Peace.

I touch on this theme frequently around here, this "whose childhood is whose" thing.  In "Esta La Luna" things get all jumbled around and in Closeted Memories I mention the gravel pits of my youth and how I filled some hours as a kid.

(Here's a link to that Tull tune, if your interested, it's actually a pretty good song.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Newest Post

Nick drew this picture for the front of his Language Arts folder:

 It's the species Triazureoculuspurpuraparvuaspirinentor.  Latin - maybe - for "threedarkblueeyepurplesmallbreathefire."  He nailed the spelling, don'tcha think?

Here's the front of one of his other folders.

Yeah... he got 'bell' right.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

Dad: "Do you realize that you two have been improving* this whole time?"

Zack: "Be quiet, Dad. You're breaking the fourth wall."


I didn't even know they​ knew what the fourth wall is, hell, I barely do...

Peace, as always.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The What For

Three times in twenty-four hours, I was asked the same question - nearly the same phrasing.  Each time, the answer got more complicated.  At least I think it did, I'll let you judge for yourself.

"What's this even for?" Nick asked me this one evening as he was looking for a ping-pong ball near the dryer.  I looked his way and he was holding up a spent dryer sheet.  Now, if you didn't know what one was, I could see how it might confuse.  Is it a really lame piece of paper?  Why does it have a slight scent?  What on earth could one do with it?  I'd imagine these same questions coming to the mind of a future anthropologist several hundred years out as he finds them by the thousands in an old dump.

I explained what they were to Nick, which turned out to take longer than one might expect.  I showed him a fresh one, hit on some properties of static electricity, shamed myself to him by explaining they had a lot of chemicals in them - though I use the unscented ones - and weren't really necessary and that they basically just coated the fabric to make it feel softer and that one shouldn't use them on towels.

We all basically know the nature of this question in this context.  You've been there, holding up a leftover lock washer, bolt or even more curiously shaped part, fixing or assembling mowers or grills or bongs.  It's wondering about that toggle switch or a slider on a sound board.  It's wondering what an emoticon is or what the actual hell that icon is supposed to represent.  You say it to yourself as your bumbling about a word processing program to change your indent and you see all this stuff you can do that is way beyond my skill level.

The thing is, it is an answerable question.  Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't mean there isn't one.  You didn't follow the instructions.  You didn't look it up or haven't been taught something but the answer is available.  You were buzzed or...

Let's move on.

My buddy Kirby sent me the lyrics and simple tune to a song he'd been working on.  He plays a baritone ukulele and sang it like an old Irish ballad.  We had a nice long discussion about it and he asked me to do, like, a cover of it.  I changed the words a little, fleshed out the tune and taped myself doing it on my phone.

Here's a link to it if you're curious:

Somewhere in this exchange, he asked me "What's this for?"  It was a good damned question.

He was wondering about the endgame.  Would this lead to a final recording?  Was this just a lark?  Was it a song we might play regularly?  Were we just goofin'?  What was my level of commitment?  All necessary questions when considering what to do next with something.

My answer, which was understandably frustrating to him - and is, frankly, not a very good one - was: "This."

Yeah...  I'm like that.

(The boys aren't allowed to say the word "stuff" in their Science teacher's classroom and I think he has a problem with "thing" as well.  I wouldn't last long.)

Here's the thing, sometimes stuff is hard to explain.

By 'this' I meant the very exchange we were having.  For a couple of guys who had to call each other after midnight because it was cheaper then and exchanged cassette tapes for years to be talking about wave-files and digital algorithms is a moment to acknowledge.  We were collaborating, which I think is a basic human need.  We were laughing and teasing and thinking and creating.  "This."

But there's more to that this.

Our journey has been a similar one, his and mine, except for one major deviation - I had kids and he did not.  We've not spent a lot of time talking about the boys.  I share a baseball victory or a band concert now and again.  Maybe a cute story about their cleverness or stupidity or silliness, but, I try to not make it the focus of our conversations.  We've plenty of other things to talk about (sorry Mr. F.).

Would you mind an aside?

Thanks.  There's a delicate balance that must be respected between those with and without children.  I've many friends who are not parents and many of them have been annoyed by the notion that you haven't really lived until you have children, or that everything changes, or that it is something that simply must be experienced. 

Yeah, bullshit.  My friend Terri (remember the names are all changed around here, unless they're not) is a talented and successful ceramic artist.  She and I had a discussion about all this at a bar one night.  Another acquaintance, a dad, had been spouting off said bullshit and then had wondered off.  I told Terri that not all parents feel that way.  We laughed when I said something about how a lot of parents are in the opposite position, thinking the higher plane might be childlessness, and that I certainly had my moments like that.  It was a longish conversation, but my point was, and still remains, that hers and mine is a parallel experience, that her life was certainly not a failed attempt at mine, nor vice-versa.  Her inner journey as an artist, a creator, is just as important as mine as a parent, a creator.  It's about depth of understanding, it's about joy, love, inner peace, spirituality, Faith.  It's about work and desire and doing the next right thing.  However, you get to these places doesn't matter... getting there does.  Get it?

End aside.

As I was saying, we don't talk about the boys much, but he wrote a song of great tenderness, a prayer almost, a blessing.  He'd never said as much before, but from what he decided to tell me in this song, I learned that he thought about it, considered my road, considered the road of these young men coming up.  It means a lot to me.  That I guess is another thing I meant by my this.

As many of you know, I get the past and the present and, increasingly, the future all tied up in a big Gordian Knot in my mind.  I try not to let it bother me but it does incline me to look at things (boy, I do that a lot, damn you Mr. F.), well, longer.

Think about this, nearly forty years of shared experiences, a stray significant anomaly - the twins - and a song that floats up out of it all that speaks to a hope for the future?  Yes, that's the this I mean.  The neverending and neverbeginning now is deucedly complex but speaks to me, and you, I hope, so profoundly.

Oh, I hate when I get caught up in these time paradoxes.

So, the last time I heard the question was in a different context.  My friend Brian (remember the names don't matter) and I were talking over coffee.  We are both the same age, latish-fifties, and both have children.  We met in college some thirty-five years ago.  We've, well, lived life.  Though divergent paths, both have been rocky, twisted, rough and long; and both have been beautiful, joyful and rewarding.  We are both men of Faith and we talk about that a lot.

We were discussing Fr. Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, which delves into the faith journey and how it changes as we approach and begin our lives in what I like to call "elderhood."  We spoke of leaving our warrior selves behind, filling and emptying and protecting our vessels - our souls - and marveled at our profound lack of understanding faith and Catholicism and energy and eternity.  We shrug our shoulders a lot when we talk.

I shared my reluctance to tell people an absolute in my life that folks just don't seem to want to hear: I have no regrets.  People take offense at that, perhaps because so many embrace the burden of regret.  They say, 'what about smoking, surely you regret that?'  Yeah, it seems like I should, but... I don't.  I have too many fond memories of cigarettes and the people I smoked them with to wish it all away with a regret.  'What about that move you made or that girl you dated or that shitty Toyota you had or...'  Stop.  Too many lessons, too much insight, too much growth, came out of all that to say I regret any of it.

Brian said that more than once he'd benefited from an oddly specific lesson he'd learned from what may, at the time, have seemed a regrettable situation.  A horrible, rainy, very-bad, camping trip that taught him to build and tend a fire in the rain and, years later, a Boy Scout Jamboree where he used those skills to save a troop of boys from a very-bad and cold night.  It happens all the time to me as well.

He said he looks at setbacks and disappointment and confusion and hears his mind asking a simple question, "What is this for?"

It helps, I think, to ask that of the cosmos, or the Holy Spirit, how ever you might see it.  I do the same thing, perhaps you do as well.  It's in the wail of "Why is this happening?" or in the confusion of the question, "What am I supposed to learn here?" or in the feeling of heartbreak I hear in my own head, "What am I missing?"

Unlike the first two instances, this 'whatfor,' if you will, is, in the moment, unanswerable.  It is not rhetorical, there is no pat answer. In a way, I think when you ask the question it is a prayer, a prayer for understanding, clarity, peace, a prayer that goes out and remains unaddressed, impotent, untended.  But it echoes in us, in time, in the corridors of memory and can, at any time, be suddenly, surprisingly, well... answered.

It happens to me all the time.

In fact, it's happening right now, my now, yours and another now way down the road.

I should just say peace out and end it right here, shouldn't I?

Well, I can't say I'm gonna do that.

There's a lilac bush outside the garage, I've mentioned it before.  I just went out to get the mail and it is nearly in full bloom.

I planted the bush a dozen or more years ago, it was, frankly, a little runt of a thing and I didn't feel much confidence for its future.  I probably asked myself 'what for' as I dug and watered and tended it for all these years.  I've marveled at the beauty of it, the science, the botany, all that.  It was years before it bloomed and it did poorly for a while.  I wondered 'what for' about that old dwarf lilac more than once, I'd admit.

This morning, on our way out to the bus, I turned back because Nick was lagging and saw him hugging the lilac bush, face buried in the blooms, and, through the purple blossoms, I heard a muffled prayer, an answer, "God, it smells like life!"

And, that's the what for.

Peace and thanks for sticking with me, I appreciate it.

My friend Terri is indeed a real person and she is a beautiful artist and soul.  You can check out her FB page here, her work is lovely. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

On Meatballs and "Stuf" (sic)

When we were kids - and by we I mean me and maybe two others - I listened to a lot of comedy records.  Weirdly, nearly everyone I knew had them, Carlin and Cosby, Bob Newhart and Red Skelton, Cheech and, of course, Chong, even an off-color black comedian or two like Redd Foxx.  There was a societal homogeneity to life when I was a kid, I mean we all knew them, these funny guys - and they were all guys.  Our parents listened to them late nights as the party was winding down and us kids, well, we listened to them when our parents were not around.

I'm glad I did, listen to them, that is.  I was thinking this morning about how to proceed and for some reason those old albums came to mind, and I got to thinking about comedy writing - something I think is about as hard as writing gets - and then just writing in general.  Comedians tend to structure their acts one of two ways.  Some tell a series of jokes, one leading to another, often in staccato rhythm, you know, the classic "and speaking of shoestrings..." approach.  The others tell longer stories, the jokes and bits woven into the fabric of a larger story.  I always preferred the later, Cosby's "Noah" bit comes to mind.

When I write, I prefer to languish, even wallow some might say, in longer stories, but, lately I've been struggling with that.  I could tell you that it's because I don't have the time I need.  You know, kids and life and the fast pace and unslowing rhythm of this hyper-modernity we all must suffer,  but that's just glorifying busy and I hate that.  I could also reason that the time to reward ratio is way off-balance, but that would be self-indulgent and more than a little sad. I could say that often these stories get away from me and spin to places I don't want you to know are in me, but, I covered that in my last post... bother.

I did short silly pieces when I first started around here, my blog was formatted not unlike those old joke-tellers, and I wonder if maybe that wasn't a better way to go, you know, "one and done," that sort of thinking.  It sure seems easier, perhaps even more engaging for you, but I have trouble doing that anymore.

"What's this got to do with meatballs?" you might be asking yourself, I know I am.

Here goes...

I made meatballs the other day.  I make them from scratch grinding the beef chuck and pork country ribs in my trusty Oster.  It's sort a pain in the ass but I grind five or six pounds and make a lot of meatballs, they freeze well.  Nick came in and was helping me make the balls.  There wasn't much teaching or even conversation, I'd already covered that a long time ago with Playdo.  We stood, watching the birds and the wind out the tired kitchen window, and, well...

That's it.  Here's the recipe:

There could be a lot to tell you about this recipe, like my inability to remember measurement abbreviations or why it says mysteriously "325g" there at the bottom.  Or that I use flatleaf Italian parsley and not the curly kind and put in more garlic than this recipe calls for.  I can only hope that in any number of years I'll remember that this stained and annotated piece of paper and ink holds a story, a pretty long story.

But today, all I want to remember is the watching Nick's hands shape meatballs as the porch chimes sounded and the wind blew brown oak leaves across the greening yard.

Here's a collage of things I found in pockets, which is quickly replacing "take-home folders" as my go to source for strange things around here:

"... but wait, there's more."  That's what I always say, isn't it?

Who did which?  What's the shark thing about?  Who forgets the second "f" in stuff?  Who's "Little Owlly" and is that his dog?  Is that an oboe fingering?

Truth is, I'm not really sure.  Like I said, I just pulled them out of the pockets of jeans before I washed them.  Could I make things up, conject, even fictionalize?  Sure, and that'd be fun.  In fact I had long stories about all of those little pieces of paper fomenting in my little mind, but, for some reason, I don't think I'll do that today.

Sometimes the story might be in not telling the story, hell, I don't know.  Maybe the story's not ready.  Or, and I think this is closest to the truth, maybe the story is just short, and concise and, well, just simple and I have trouble accepting that.  For now.

Perhaps that's what those old vaudevillians knew, sometimes a gag is just a gag.  Sometimes a joke is easy and plain.  There's plenty of time for long stories, but sometimes, the story is done with us before we are done with it.

I've been in a writing slump lately, "writer's block" they call it.  I don't really believe there is such a thing.  I don't like the connotation it has.  I may not be writing so much, but, I'm not in a creative void.  I've been looking at other things, listening to music, viewing documentaries, singing new songs, reading non-fiction and children's lit, watching baseball.

It seems like there was one more little thing I wanted to tell you...

Oh, yeah.

These dudes turned twelve this week.

I guess that's the story I've been trying to tell around here...

Peace and thanks for stopping by.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Hope Takes a Hit"

I sit, perhaps too frequently, at our dining room table. I face the backyard and watch the finches and titmice scurry, flit and flutter around the bird-feeder just down the steps. Squirrels forage around underneath and dig in the flower pots that await their basil, thyme and rosemary. The grass is greening and there are red buds on the maple trees. A cool wind sways the pine trees in the back against a pale blue, cloudless sky.

I often wonder what exactly it is I am looking for. Is it emotion or connection? Is it understanding, reconciliation, serenity? Why, somedays, do I laugh at the same landscape that today brings tears? What is out there beyond the shed, under the pines, beyond the fence? Secretly though, I know what I am searching for.

The right damn words.

There is an erroneous - if not silly - notion that writers slip behind their keyboards and effortlessly tipper-tap sentences and paragraphs one after another. It's just as silly to imagine painters constantly, well, painting or potters always at their wheel or sculptors endlessly chiseling away at wood or granite. No, it all takes thought, endless hours staring at a creek or busy street or falling leaves or wounded trees or baseball games or old movies or goldfish or even that taunting keyboard, wheel or chisel.

I don't always find them, the right words.

Sometimes they come easily. That was the case when I first started writing here when I was showcasing the boys burgeoning talents. The pieces just sort of wrote themselves, silly or sad or joyful, it was easy to find the words.

Lately... not so much.

The words I find these days are not always kind. Fear and anxiety seep into the syntax. The sweet adjectives become surly and insolent; the verbs seem more aggressive and urgent; the narratives are bleaker and my tone becomes discordant. This all, frankly, alarms me. I've found hundreds of words here, looking out on a cloudy and cold winter's morn, and, upon rereading them, wonder who wrote them, from where this darkness?

Here, in this silly little corner of the internet, they seem inappropriate. They juxtapose too harshly against the happy backstory. And, well, I usually delete them. Occasionally, I may send them to a friend, but mostly I just let them go. Will I come to regret not publishing them here? I may.

You know, I treat this digital diary - this blog - as a long love letter ostensibly for the boys, but, if truth were told, it is also a love letter to myself and Marci, my friends, my family, to life itself. This is all, at its heart, celebratory and sacred.

Sure, I can think of a few pieces I've left here, that missed that high mark, and, when I encounter them as I look back here, they are, even to me, offputting, jarring. But sometimes I want to just go off. I want the boys to know there was this side of me.


This all has been designed to bring me to the "wait there's more" part of my little pony show here. But, today, I'm not going there. Oh, I had a piece in mind, I even have already outlined and written most of it. It was sure to be acerbic and witty, sarcastic and razor-edged. It was going to be clever and current and political and condescending and... well, you get the point.

It was to be neither celebratory nor sacred.

So, I'll leave it for another time, another season. Perhaps I can soften the edges or turn to allegory or, maybe, I'll just change my mind and find the truth beneath all the bitterness.

Peace to you and yours.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat..."
 (guest edition)

"I really don't have anything to say. I just like to talk."

Yep... guilty as charged.

Thanks for coming around.  Here's a picture of the backyard as I saw it this morning.

 And, yes, yes that is a squirrel in the flowerpot, he just sorta showed up.  I like that.

(I forgot to change the title of this piece from the original, oh well, Blogger gets confused if I try to edit that after I publish.  Oh well, it sorta works... or not.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why You Can't Pin Memory on a Timeline

Memory baffles me.  The process of it.  As I get older, approaching fifty-six, I look back with anything but clarity.  I've tried to hold onto the timeline of it all, but, I gotta admit there are months I am not really sure about.  Did I work for that drunken Algerian French dude before I worked in fine dining with that pretty, crazy girl at the Hilton?  When did I live in that apartment with the deck and a pretty little sun room where I painted horrible paintings and was happy?  A rich girl and a guest house in toney Michigan with a Chris Craft and a sinking pontoon boat?  Was it when I was twenty?  Was I ever that young?

It's overwhelming really.  I sometimes feel like I'm not up to it, remembering causes avalanches of images and faces and places and, well... feelings.

It is easy to get caught up in the factual details of memory.  You hear folks do it all the time, "Was it Tuesday or Wednesday?" or, "Where were we going on that trip?"  Honestly though, I'm not sure a brain is capable of keeping all those details at the ready.  If you're trying to tell a story about seeing a child, say, hit a home run or get thrown out at first, I don't need to know the model of the car you took to the game.  But, and here's the thing, the trick of memory, the car may be revealed because it rode along with the story because both were discussed in the back seat of a late model Ford F-150, red.

Stories reveal emotion, it is their divine business, and they can be persistent.  Just as I am writing this, in the back of my mind, I am going through the story of those two restaurants.

The owner was named Jacques, it was a four-star place with a menu full of rich, classic French food.  I liked working there and he was pretty good to me.  I waited tables on weekends and bartended a couple of weeknights and... here we go.  

The moment I stopped trying to figure where this all fit in the time frame of my life, all the emotions flooded down on me.  A wide, white bowl of Veal Navarin, with turnips and haricot verts with couscous, the aroma of fresh thyme and rich demi-glace coming up off of it as I set it on a white linen tablecloth.  Crusty creme brulee, fresh orange juice mimosas.  God, I loved that food.  I loved working there.  It was called "Voulez-Vous" - and that's the trick of memory I spoke of.

He fired me one night for neglecting to put a few entrees on a check, I'd served four Charcuteries and only charged for one.  He was drunk and so was I.  We shouted.  It was an accident but for some reason he thought I'd done it on purpose, to get him.  He was as red as the beets vinaigrette we'd served that night and as mad as only a French-Algerian can get.  I walked out with my apron still on.  I remember crying as I walked down Third Avenue.  Crying in anger I'm sure, but crying at the loss as well.  He'd taught me so much about service and elegance and grace, about cuisine and wine and technique.

From there I went to work at the Hilton - "Nicole's" was the name - and met the crazy, pretty girl.  Just to prove my point, I'm now recalling how all that went down.  A girl who'd worked for Jacques worked there and they hired me as a back waiter sight unseen.  I don't think I'd have gotten the job without the experience I had there at "Voulez Vous."  Her name was Cathy and she was an actress.  We went out for a few months and she left for California and shortly thereafter I left for home, Ohio.  Yes, there is more to that story, but it's best kept for another time.

Man, I'll tell you what, once you start thinking back like this, the waves just keep coming.  Just before I left town, I went to see Jacques.  I wanted, ostensibly, to ask him for a reference, but I also wanted to make amends and say goodbye.  I went early afternoon and the place was dark and empty.  He sat where he always sat at the bar, back to the hostess stand.  He'd heard the door or noticed the light had changed and simply shouted that they were closed and would open at five.  I didn't know what to do, in fact, I nearly just slunk out.

I hesitated and he turned.  "Bill, Bill," he said, pronouncing it as he always had, like "eel" with a 'b' in front of it, "You've come back to us!"  He was short and balding and a little tubby and I can still see him waddling across that dining room in all its elegance and shaking my hand.  It's funny, he apologized over and over.  He confessed to what trouble he'd gotten into with his wife.  He told me I was one of the best young servers he'd ever had and offered my job back to me right there.

I explained why I was there.  I told him, as I told everyone, that New York City had won, had beaten me, and I was heading home.

"To Hioho," he always mispronounced Ohio, probably to irritate me, "Merde, you are better than that.  Stay, work for me again and you will run this place someday."  It's important to note that he had an almost comically outrageous french accent.

I told him it was all arranged, lease let go, job quit, U-Haul ordered.  (God, I'd forgotten all this, which is patently false it would seem because here I am recounting it to you right now.)  He invited me to the bar and opened a bottle of wine, a Sancerre if memory serves - and it does.  We gossiped about old employees and regulars.  He winced as he told me how many of my regulars complained when his wife told them he'd fired me, she was the hostess and part owner, Julia.

I'd only planned to stop by quickly.  But the wine was good and the staff came in, many of whom I still knew.  I ate dinner with them, the chef made me serve. The rush started and I hung out for several hours, Jacques making drinks for me and introducing me to patrons, calling over regulars and making me feel important.  Julia was happy to see me and continuously chided the poor man for firing me.  It was an unforgettable night, though, apparently, I almost did, forget it that is. 

You know, for years he gave me a glowing reference and, in all seriousness, he made me the professional waiter I became. But, what I remember most is him walking me out the side door onto the sidewalk of Seventy-sixth Street.  He handed me a hundred dollars mumbling something about buying some good wine with it, and hugged me, tears running down his again beet red face.

I can't speak for you, but, the emotional back door to my room of memory is the best way for me to get in.

Over the years, I've let this digital diary act as a depository of memory, an archive of sorts, for both me and the boys.  But, as I illustrated above, memory is not as easy as just taking a picture or jotting down a story, putting the date on it, and filing it away.

The other day Nick was looking for something to do - yes, we let our boys get bored.  He was in the corner of the closet rifling through the bins of forgotten toys and projects and books they've made when he found his writing journal from second grade.  He brought it out and went through it, laughing at his misspellings - as I have been for years - and the confused little stories, non-sequiturs, inexplicable drawings and stickmen. 

Soon Zack was looking over his shoulder and Nick told him his journal was in the bin as well and went to get it for him.  Z began looking at his and realized because the assignment had been a daily writing prompt, they probably had the same or similar entries.  Starting at the beginning, they laughed their way through, day by day - "Wacky Wednesday" or "Tell a Story Tuesday."

And "If I Had Three Wishes."

Zack's third wish was "3 more wishes," classic, and Nick wants a "germen sheperd named roney."

Here's a couple more, "Field Day" and "10 Things My Teacher Taught Me."  (Nick went with "feald" and "tot.")

Here's the page with both from Zack:

And this is Nick's:

They've been teasing each other back and forth this whole time.  Nick tells Zack he just wrote the "same flipping thing, over and over" for the 10 Things one.

"Well, who spells field, f-e-a-l-d?"  Zack says back through a laugh, it's all good-natured fun.

"Well, you're over there bragging about hitting home runs."

"Yeah, well what part of 10 things don't you get, you only wrote down three."

"Yeah..." Nick replies back.  And then he says  "oh..." long and drawn out, the oh-I-get-it sigh.

"That was my first day back after I broke my arm."

We all go silent for a moment or two, the memories, Marci's, Zack's, poor Nick's and mine, settling in around us, so quickly, so effortlessly.

And that's why you can't pin a memory on a timeline.  They twist and wrap around each other, one carries another, two, three, several seemingly unrelated bits lace together and tell another memory, a different story.  

You know what?  Go back and look at that last image.  You can click it and it gets bigger.  Just those two entries, side by side.  His third and final thing is "helping." Man, that's a great story.

I can even overcomplicate it more.  When the boys perhaps see this in forty or fifty years, what ghosts of memory will they see?  Will it be their second-grade classroom or Mrs. G?  Will they remember all the "Feald Days" of those early elementary days as one event?  Will they remember sitting on a couch remembering and laughing at their silly journals?  Will they remember how jarring and emotional the quick memory of Nick's broken arm was?  Will they be more interested in the stories I tell of restaurants past and dreams set aside?  Will they get to choose?

I think not, I never get to...

There's one last - that's a lie there's never a last thing.  A long time ago, in the opening paragraph, I mentioned an apartment with a porch and a sunroom.  I painted garish abstracts on big canvases with acrylics.  I was happy.  I had a large work table I'd made from two-by-fours and a sheet of plywood covered in a muslin dropcloth.  On it, off to the corner nearest the porch, was a cactus, a "Christmas Cactus" to be precise.  I'm sure you've seen them.

Here's a picture of the one that is blooming here in the dining room.

I wonder if seeing that bloom didn't put me in mind of that table which made me ask myself when that was and then all the memories who weren't sure where they belonged piled back on me.  But memory is not kismet.  It is poignant, playful, powerful but there always comes with it a deliberateness.  As though we knew we needed to remember something.

I've kept you too long, thanks for sticking with me.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat... "

"He's pirouetting like a mad man."

I saw that ballet in college...

Peace, and all that.